A new history of the Ukrainian famine illustrates the perils of using the past in service of today’s politics

Sophie Pinkham in The Nation:

DownloadCommemoration can consolidate national feeling through celebration or mourning. It can remind a country of its gravest mistakes, or it can whitewash them. Evolving national historical narratives turn defeats into victories and villains into heroes, and vice versa. Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, a new history of the famine, illustrates the perils of using the past in the service of today’s politics. Drawing on archives opened after the fall of the Soviet Union, newly available oral histories, and recent scholarship, Applebaum provides an accessible, up-to-date account of this nightmarish but still relatively unknown episode of the 20th century. Her historical account is distorted, however, by her loathing of communism and by her eagerness to shape the complicated story of the famine into one more useful for the present: about a malevolent Russia and a heroic, martyred, unified Ukraine.

In 1928, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union had a food problem. Because of policies that gave farmers little incentive to sell their grain, the state could no longer feed the urban population. Stalin became convinced that counterrevolutionary “kulaks”—a mostly imaginary class of fat-cat capitalist peasants—were hoarding grain. He ordered requisitions that angered the peasants and discouraged production, leading to further grain shortages, which in turn were followed by even more requisitions. Stalin had quickly made his own suspicions come true: Peasants began to hoard and hide grain—in protest and as a means of survival.

In response to this crisis, the Communist Party’s Central Committee decided to collectivize agriculture in 1929.

More here. [Thanks to Corey Robin.]